This week, three former CIA officials grappled with those questions in a forum at the American Enterprise Institute. The discussion was supposed to be about "Zero Dark Thirty." But it was really a chance to see in person the thinking of the people who ran and justified the detainee interrogation program.
It's also a chance to examine our own thinking. Do we really understand what the CIA did and why? Was the payoff worth the moral cost? And what can we learn from it? Former CIA director Michael Hayden led the panel. He was joined by Jose Rodriguez, who ran the agency's National Clandestine Service, and John Rizzo, who served as the CIA's chief legal officer. The stories they told, and the reasons they offered, shook up my assumptions about the interrogation program. They might shake up yours, too. Here's what they said.
1. The detention program was a human library.
The panelists didn't use that term, but it reflects what they described. After detainees were interrogated, the CIA kept them around for future inquiries and to monitor their communications. Sometimes this yielded a nugget, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's message to his fellow detainees: "Do not say a word about the courier." Rodriguez said this incident shows "the importance of having a place like a black site to take these individuals, because we could use that type of communication. We could use them as background information to check a name."
2. Enhanced interrogation techniques were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly.
Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted enhanced interrogation wasn't torture.) That's why "we never asked anybody anything we didn't know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment."
Instead, the interrogations were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information.
More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was "to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation" by convincing them that "you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands."
Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for enhanced interrogation.
Rodriguez explained: "Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. . . . The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful. "
3. The human library was part of the will-breaking process.
"Because we had other prisoners in our black sites, we would be able to check information against others. And they [detainees] knew that," said Rodriguez. In this way, simply holding detainees in opaque confinement gave interrogators leverage.
4. We had tested enhanced interrogation techniques on ourselves.
Rodriguez said he quickly accepted the use of enhanced interrogation in part because "I knew that many of these procedures were applied to our own servicemen. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers had gone through this." If these methods were safe and moral to use on Americans, weren't they safe and moral to use on our enemies?
5. Freelancing was forbidden.
Rizzo outlined some rules for enhanced interrogation: No interrogator was allowed to use a waterboard without first submitting written justification, and only the CIA director could approve it.
So, for what it's worth, there were internal checks on the practice, at least because the CIA would be politically accountable for what its interrogators did.
6. Rules were a weakness, and ambiguity was leverage.
While citing the program's rules as a moral defense, the panelists also groused that the rules cost them leverage. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, noticed a time limit on waterboarding.
"Pretty quickly, he recognized that within 10 seconds we would stop pouring water," said Rodriguez. "He started to count with his fingers, up to 10, just to let us know that the time was up."
Hayden said that when the incoming Obama administration ruled out enhanced interrogation, he requested a caveat: "unless otherwise authorized by the president." This, he explained, would create "ambiguity" so that anyone captured in the future couldn't be "quite sure what would happen" to them.
7. Enhanced interrogation was useful as an implicit threat.
Hayden said only a third of the detainees required enhanced interrogation. But he acknowledged that "the existence of the option may have influenced" the rest.
8. The library rationale withered.
The detainees' value as constantly accessible sources didn't mean they could be kept forever. They were human beings, too, and this created political and international problems. Over time, their intelligence value sank below the PR cost of keeping them at black sites. "When I became director in 2006, I concluded that, number one, we are not the nation's jailers," said Hayden.
"We are the nation's intelligence service. And so there just can't be an endless detention program." Accordingly, he transferred a dozen detainees out of CIA custody, "not because their intelligence value had become zero . . . but because the intelligence value of most of them had edged off to a point that other factors were becoming more dominant in the equation."
9. The library became less necessary as we developed other sources.
Hayden said he re-evaluated the program in 2006 based in part on the declining need for it: "How much more did we know about al Qaida now? How many more human and other intelligence penetrations of al Qaida did we now have, compared to the where we were, almost in extremis, in 2002?" There was less need to keep the human books on the shelf, now that the CIA could download information through other channels.
10. Enhanced interrogation liberated detainees from religious bondage.
Rodriguez said detainee Abu Zubaydah eventually "told us that we should use waterboarding . . . on all the brothers," because the brothers needed to have religious justification to talk, to provide information.
However, they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities of resistance. So once they felt that they were there, they would then become compliant and provide information. So he basically recommended to us that we needed to submit the brothers to this type of procedure. . . . As a matter of fact, it would help them reach the level where they would become compliant and provide information. Hayden said the Abu Zubaydah story "was important for my own soul-searching on this."
The detainee's view of the interrogators, he said, was that "Allah expects us to obey him, but he will not send us a burden that is greater than we can handle. You have done that. Therefore you have freed my soul, that I can speak to you without fear of hell."
11. The liberation rationale may not apply to future conflicts.
Enhanced interrogation were "peculiarly well suited to this group, whose belief was founded on . . . obedience to the will of God," said Hayden. That doesn't mean "what we were doing was universally applicable for all detainees in all circumstances for all future crises."
12. If you refuse to exploit prisoners, you'll end up killing your enemies instead.
All three panelists trashed the Obama-era conceit that we're a better country because we've scrapped the interrogation program. What we've really done, they argued, is replace interrogations with drone strikes.
"We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture," said Hayden, "that it seems, from the outside looking in, that the default option is to take the terrorists off the battlefield in another sort of way." Rizzo agreed, and he quoted "The Godfather" to suggest that the new policy is bloody and stupid: "You can't kill everybody." 13. Face the dilemma.
The panelists welcomed moral debate about enhanced interrogation but scorned the delusion that these methods hadn't produced vital information. Candor about the cost of your principles, they argued, is a basic rule of moral health.
"We need to be honest with ourselves," said Rodriguez.
What can these disclosures and reflections by former leaders of the CIA teach us? Several things. First, when you're under pressure and fear, as the CIA was after 9/11, it's easy to talk yourself into anything. You tell yourself it's OK to waterboard detainees because we've waterboarded U.S. soldiers - never mind that the soldiers knew it was just an exercise.
Second, it's possible to partially dehumanize people - in this case by treating them as library assets - while still drawing up rules to limit your exploitation of them.
Third, those rules are constantly at risk, because you always have an incentive to leave loopholes so you can instill fear.
Fourth, the right question to ask about enhanced interrogation isn't whether people lie under torture but whether using torture to train human beings in obedience is wrong despite the payoffs.
Fifth, instead of congratulating ourselves for shutting down the detention program, we should ask whether its closure is leading us to kill people we might otherwise capture.
And sixth, even when we decide that brutal interrogation methods are justified, it's always important to specify the reasons and acknowledge the costs, so that the brutality expires when the reasons no longer suffice.
Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate.